Last year, I was honored to receive an invitation to address the Medical Student Section of the American Medical Association (AMA) on writing about medicine. I’ve been meaning to upload my slides for a while, if only to follow my own advice about how things get broader readership when you blog them. But mostly, I hope these can be useful for others who are thinking about sharing their own ideas about medicine via writing.
I’d like to reiterate something I said here when I spoke to Scientific American in 2013, as it’s something I really stand by. The question was “How important do you think it is to provide people with a more adequate view of the medical sector (as you do through your blogging)?” And I said “Important… I don’t think this applies only to medicine; in general, I wish more people would write on what they’re passionate about. The list of what I read is varied, and it’s always great to find a new blog that covers something I know little about. Sometimes if I am having a good conversation with someone, I think: this person should be writing. A good conversation reaches one person, or maybe a handful. Writing gets to many.”
Here are some of my thoughts. I hope these slides may be helpful for those who might want to add their own voices to the mix.
I feel lucky to have had the freedom to cover a wide range of subjects in my medical writing, and I have liked it that way. My 45+ pieces since I began blogging have included reflections on patient encounters, coverage of interesting advances in medicine, commentary on topics in medical ethics, and perspectives on health care improvement. The ability to mix multiple disciplines like science, humanism, ethics, and policy drew me to medicine, and I try to use it in my writing as well. As these slides suggest, there are many subjects and styles that fall under the umbrella of “writing about medicine.” Find one – or several – that speak to you. This is your voice; and there is no need to place arbitrary limitations on how you wish to sound or the topics you wish to cover.
The last quote on the middle slide above is from the 2012 commencement speech to Harvard Medical School, where Donald Berwick spoke of the privilege that comes with being a physician whose voice is trusted. His words have stayed with me as I have written about medicine and think about my future goals. Medicine will, inevitably, be written about; it is a universal subject of interest, as every person has crossed paths with it in some way. Unfortunately, there is simply no guarantee coverage will be done well. Some of us are privileged to be in a position of having “insider” information, and there is incredible responsibility that comes with that. Through my writing, one of my main goals is to be professional and fair: to convey multiple sides of an issue, to provide appropriate context, and to apply a critical eye to the topics I encounter.
These are some brief notes on my personal journey to blogging. Yours will be different. But one thing I want to point out here is the idea of “horizontal” networking, and essentially how much more open the world of publishing is today. Want to start writing? In the old days, you would have to find a media outlet, pitch a topic that fits with them, and tailor your voice to fit in. Now, you can still do that of course. But you can also just start your own space. I started blogging on a personal website and my blog ultimately transitioned here. A great part was the freedom to write on my own terms, on whatever subjects I chose to. There is a lot more opportunity now to do things like this, and I think the pool of reading includes a much more diverse and interesting set of voices as a result.
One thing worth mentioning as you start to work more: don’t fall into the trap of thinking everything is an opportunity. Your time – and your words – are valuable. As more people read your pieces, you will get more requests to write. Do your research into whether the project will be worth it for you. It is perfectly OK to say no. It is also more than OK to advocate for yourself; for instance, find out what the editing process looks like before agreeing to publish with an outlet, because remember – no one who reads the piece will know that the copy desk came up with that bizarre title. All readers will see is the byline – your name – and that is your reputation. Of course, compromise will sometimes be necessary, but you are ultimately in charge of protecting your own work.
I think the title of the Washington Post piece is self-explanatory. And hilarious. This was an article that was discussing policy problems, but the general theme can be applied to medicine, too (not to mention many any other fields). We’re big in medicine on publishing ideas in high-profile academic journals – but then what? As I mention in the slide above, writing for academic publications and writing for popular audiences are certainly not mutually exclusive. Both have value, and I personally have done my share of both and intend to continue both. But there’s something important to be said for that next step: taking good ideas that are sequestered away in academic journals available only to a few, and making them available for many. The turn-around time for blogging can also be significantly faster, and this matters for timely issues. Academic publications and letters in response to them often take months or even years to make their way into the discourse. Blogs happen with the click of a button. I am hopeful we can all have more inclusive and more productive conversations by branching out.
The short answer to the above is yes. It’s a tautology, but here it is: If you want to have a voice on the Internet, you have to say things on the Internet. As Bora Zivkovic so eloquently stated above, use social media to spread that voice. The nice thing is that you will make connections with interesting people and hear many other thought-provoking perspectives.
Some final thoughts on ongoing challenges, if you do decide to take up writing about medicine.
-On confidentiality. One of the biggest challenges in writing about medicine is grappling with which narratives to tell. However, one thing is easy: respect for your patients comes first. Asking for permission and changing details when necessary to protect privacy are crucial.
-Imagine who will be reading this. Your colleagues? Your patients? I try not to live a life of “maybe I shouldn’t,” but I also think imagining your readership can keep your writing in check, in a good way.
-Internet commentators are notorious, and if you start writing, you will learn this first-hand. At first I was more open to publishing any comment that touched my blog. Soon I realized that was harmful to the discourse I was trying to cultivate in the first place. Those who read my blog know I more than welcome commentators to disagree with me. But, in my comments section, there is no space for personal attacks (whether on me, on other commentators, or anyone else). It is also not a space for commentators to proudly vent about whatever might be on their mind, no matter how vaguely related to the topic at hand. So, when deciding what comments to keep, I personally use these two simple rules (keep it relevant; and no personal attacks) as my guide, and I’ve been very pleased with the results.
A huge thank you to everyone who helped me get my start in the blogging world. To those who might want to join in, best of luck and happy writing!